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He put art in motion.

Yet sculptor Alexander Calder, who invented the mobile in 1931, balanced engineering and modernism with joie de vivre.

"Above all, I feel art should be happy," he once said.

Fine art, happy?

That's a radical concept, agreed Lynne Warren, curator of the new Calder exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The 20th century maverick made art accessible for all ages, Warren said. Calder's work exists just to be seen and experienced. Even "three-month-old babies can gaze at it," she pointed out.

So can next-generation artists, and seven are spotlit in "Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance and Joy," the first exhibit to showcase the sculptor's influence. Divided into two galleries, the show stars more than 60 Calder works in one room, 20 by younger talents in the other.

Artist Kristi Lippire, whose works are as super-sized and playful as Calder's, is frank about the master modernist's influence. "I don't think you can hang anything from the ceiling and not invoke art history," she said.

The Windy City, a natural backdrop for Calder's mobiles, boasts more than 30 masterworks including public sculptures. The city's love affair dates back to Oct. 25, 1974, when Major Richard J. Daley proclaimed "Alexander Calder Day to mark the dedications of "Flamingo" in Federal Center Plaza and the "Universe" mobile in the Sears (now Willis) Tower.

"Alexander the Great" himself was the star attraction at a circus-style parade down State Street. The MCA hosted its first Calder retrospective in conjunction with the Calder-palooza.

More than 35 years later, the bright red "Flamingo" ranks with the Bean and the Picasso as a Chicago icon. Though fixed in place, the 53-foot, mantis-like "stabile" looks ready to pounce on pedestrians.

"Flying Dragon" in the Art Institute, bristles with the same kinetic energy. Those steel-plate wings are poised to flap.

Culled from collections nationwide, the new MCA show is a reminder why Calder, who died in 1976, had the world on a string from the 1940s through the mid-1970s.

A roomful of his sleek, Miro-inspired mobiles -- many sporting red, black and white discs and abstract shapes -- rotate gently in response to guests' movements and shifting air currents. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre likened the visual effect to nature "causing a thousand butterflies to take wing."

The Pennsylvania-born artist's affection for domestic and circus animals take shape in charming sculptures of cats, fish, snakes, and sheet-metal seals balancing -- you guessed it -- mobiles on their noses.

During World War II, the artist, unable to secure sheet metal, relied on found materials. His resourcefulness is evidenced by coffee-tin birds and "Little Face" (1943), a wire face with suspended wine glass-bases eyes and broken-taillight lips.

Mischievous abstracts include "29 Discs" (1958), an ersatz wire rack sporting an elegant pendulum on one side, an unruly mobile on the other. Calder, who studied engineering before pursuing art, was zealous about balancing his creations with mathematical precision.

A monumental commission bridges the two galleries, contextualizing Calder's influence on his eco-sociological-minded heirs. Jason Middlebrook constructed "From the Forest to the Mill to the Store to the Home to the Streets and Back Again" (2009-10) on site.

Suspended over visitors' heads, the environmental piece features a tree trunk offset by a woody knot of cast-off furniture, plywood and floorboards. The heap of salvaged wood "draws a connection to the original source," Middlebrook noted.

Other sculptors featured include Martin Boyce, Nathan Carter, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Aaron Curry and Jason Meadows. Based in Chicago through Oct. 17, the show is bound for the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, Calif., and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

 

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